===================The Expansion of Islam (AD 622 – 750)
As the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires battled each other for control of the Middle East at the dawn of the seventh century, few if any could have foreseen that neither power was truly destined to hold these lands. From the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula emerged a new power, one unified by religious zeal into a storm of unprecedented ferocity: the Arabs. Within little over a century, a politically and religiously fragmented region established a new world religion and went on to build one of the largest empires in history, reaching from Iberia in the west to India and China in the east.
The Arab world had long enjoyed a certain degree of political and economical integration, owing to the existence of more prosperous political entities in its periphery: the Roman-held dominions of Nabataea and Palmyra to the northwest, the Persians to the northeast and the Himyarites to the south in Yemen. However, the situation had changed dramatically by the sixth century as the Arabian Peninsula had become an easy target for the empires of Byzantium, Sassanid Persia and Ethiopia. All three were led by expansionist imperial governments commanding vast military power and pursuing policies of both political and religious centralisation. By comparison, the Arab tribes lacked any central leadership, adhered to petty tribal religions and knew only a shadow of unity, namely Mecca (Arabic: مكة
), the Arab world’s most important trading hub and religious sanctuary. But even Mecca had started to fall in decline at the dawn of the seventh century, as a result of the overall predicament of the Arabian Peninsula.
In these troubled times, a man by the name of Muhammad (Arabic: محمد) stood up and attempted to set the Arabs on a new path. Born in Mecca around 570, he grew up as an orphan under the care of his uncle and went on to work as both a shepherd and a merchant. But from 610 onward, he began to consider himself a messenger of God (Arabic: الله, Allah
) and claimed to receive ‘revelations’ (Arabic: آيات, (pl.) ayat
) from God through the archangel Gabriel (Arabic: جبريل, Jibril
). Within three years, Muhammad was preaching a message of determined monotheism to the polytheist people of Mecca, calling on them to ‘surrender’ (Arabic: الإسلام, al-Islam
) to Allah, the universal God who transcended the established tribal deities of the Arabs. Thus was born the new religion of Islam, although key elements of Muhammad’s message were drawn straight from Judaism, which he was familiar with from his merchant days: the strong emphasis on a monotheist belief in a masculine god, the notions of an afterlife and a ‘Final Judgement’ by God and the belief that adhering to the ‘one true faith’ is essential to one’s deliverance.
Muhammad’s message initially gained him little success or followers but considerable opposition. The people of Mecca chose to see him as more of a betrayer of the established religious traditions than the bringer of the ‘true faith’. More importantly, Muhammad quickly invoked the hostility of Mecca’s ruling tribe, the Quraish (Arabic: قريش
), who considered him a dissenter and potential threat to their power. Rather than a prophet, Muhammad may have ended up a dead man unknown to history had he not fled Mecca for Yathrib (later renamed ‘Medina’ (Arabic: اَلْمَدِينَة , al-Madīnah
)) in 622, an event which would become known as the Hijra (Arabic: هِجْرَة, hijrah
) – the traditional starting point of the Islamic Calendar. Muhammad and his followers gained significantly greater support in Medina, converting its tribes to the new faith and drafting the so-called Constitution of Medina, which committed the city’s factions to mutual cooperation and allegiance to the leadership of Muhammad himself.
Henceforth the followers of Islam, calling themselves Muslims (Arabic: مسلمون, (pl.) muslimūn
), would gain power ever more rapidly. By 630, Muslim forces had successfully waged war on their old enemy the Quraish and returned to Mecca in triumph. Much of Arabia was subsequently brought under the wings of the new faith, including Oman, for Muhammad had added to his monotheist message a call for Arab unity. Only a unified Arabia would be able to cast off the threat of foreign empires and emerge as a power capable of facing up to its foes. By the time of his death in 632, Muhammad had accomplished his lifetime goal: the Arab tribes were at last united into a single Muslim polity. However, disagreement existed over who was to assume Muhammad’s role now that he had passed on, and Arab unity seemed in peril. The problem of succession was ultimately solved by the proclamation of the Caliphate (Arabic: خلافة, khalifa
). Muhammad’s old friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr emerged as an acceptable successor to all and was subsequently proclaimed as the first Caliph (Arabic: خليفة, khalifah
). Abu Bakr and his three successors – Umar, Uthman and Ali – are known as the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’, all four of whom had directly known Muhammad or were related to him. After 661, lordship of the Islamic world passed to the Ummayad Caliphate which lasted until 750. It was during this time span of little over a century that the Arabs set out to settle old accounts with Byzantium and Sassanid Persia, and spread the faith of Islam beyond the confines of Arabia. Thus began a phenomenal conquering march, unprecedented in terms of both speed and efficiency.
Muslim forces fell upon the feuding Byzantine and Sassanid Empires from 634 onward, proving more than capable of simultaneously battling the war-exhausted armies of both empires and gaining decisive field victories at Ajnadayn in 634, Yarmuk in 636 and Nihawend in 642. As the military advance progressed, city after city fell to the Arab storm: Damascus in 634, Ctesiphon in 637, Jerusalem in 638 and Mosul 641. Subsequently, the storm became a hurricane which neither the Sassanids nor the Byzantines were really able to counter. Alexandria fell in 641, Tripoli in 643, causing the Byzantines to lose both Egypt and the Exarchate of Africa, in addition to already-lost Palestine and Syria. All of Northern Africa was firmly conquered by 710, prompting the Muslim horde to cross the Straits of Gibraltar into Iberia. By 718, the Visigoth Kingdom had been destroyed and the Iberian Peninsula had been almost completely conquered. In the east meanwhile, Muslim forces brought all of Persia under their control between 640 and 660, destroying the Sassanid Empire before pressing onward. By 722, only a century after the Flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, Islam stood victorious from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas and ready to invade Western Europe and India.
As empires were toppled, cities conquered and peoples subdued, only the Byzantine Empire held out against the Arab hurricane. However, the Byzantines had nothing to celebrate besides their survival, which itself hung by a thread. Byzantine armies had been dealt a string of searing defeats and the empire had effectively lost over half of its territory. Muslim forces both raided and invaded Asia Minor, unsuccessfully besieging Constantinople not once but twice (673 – 678 and 717 – 718).
The Arabs avoided being absorbed by the peoples they conquered mainly due to the faith of Islam, to which they held firmly as they advanced. Any real integration was therefore absent for a long time to come, especially in the Middle East where the Arabs were in fact an elite class controlling a population which would remain largely non-Muslim for another two centuries.
More importantly, the Arabs’ enormous territorial gains stood parallel to serious internal troubles. The first Islamic Civil War ended in 661 with the murder of the fourth caliph, Ali, a traumatic event in Muslim history which led to a permanent division within Islam, pitting the followers of Ali (the Shi’a) against the followers of the new Umayyad dynasty (the Sunna). The Umayyad Caliphate attempted to counter civil strife and political instability by emphasising the importance of the Caliphate as an entity before that of the Caliph as a person. The Caliphate became less ‘Arab’ as the Umayyads tried to promote its Islamic nature before its Arab one, drafted increasing numbers of non-Arabs into their armies – especially Syrians – and moved the Caliphate’s capital from Medina to Damascus. Arabic nevertheless remained the Caliphate’s lingua franca
and the new rulers transformed the intact Byzantine-Persian bureaucratic framework into an Arab one, allowing Arabic to replace Greek and Persian as the governmental language by the end of the eighth century.
Internal problems rose once more between the years 730 and 750, complemented by a number of military defeats: Frankish forces smashed Islam’s rampage across Europe at the famous Battle of Tours (729), the Byzantines defeated the Muslims in Asia Minor at the Battle of Akroinos and the Turgesh Khaganate successfully repelled the Islamic advance into Transoxiana at the Day of Thirst (724) and yet again at the Battle of the Baggage (737). The Umayyad Caliphate was ultimately toppled in 750 and replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate, which nevertheless continued to govern along the lines set out by its predecessors. The creation of an Islamic Empire took priority over creating an Arab one. To further emphasise this and the rise of the new dynasty, the Caliphate’s capital was moved once more, this time from Damascus to Baghdad, which in the ninth century became one of the largest cities in the world. Moving the capital further east prevented a continued Mediterranean influence, of which arch-enemy Byzantium was the foremost embodiment, and presented the Caliphate as more of a successor to Sassanid Persia.
However, the prosperity and power of Abbasid rule was not to last and the Caliphate fell apart into various splinter domains throughout the ninth and tenth century. Emirs took power in Persia, establishing their own de facto independent dynasties and owing only nominal authority to the Abbasids in Baghdad. Muslim Iberia (Al-Andalus) had already been de facto independent under continued Umayyad rule since 756. In Tunisia, the Shiite Fatimid dynasty rose to prominence in the tenth century, ultimately holding sway over Northern Africa (including Egypt), Palestine and much of Western Arabia, establishing its own Caliphate. Despite the unified Islamic Empire having ended in favour of smaller states, the faith of Islam continued to guarantee a major degree of cultural unity for many centuries to come.© 2013 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com